Holiday jobs: Stores' fervid fans ready for blue-collar Christmas

That describes the seven men and women who showed up last week at The Container Store here. All raised their hands when asked if they were regular customers. Some figured they'd be spending so much time shopping at the store during the holidays, they might as well get paid for being there and enjoy a 40% discount on most merchandise and 50% off the store's Elfa shelving systems.

Linda Buchanan, a project management director for a software-development company, is about seven years away from retiring and is considering creative options for retirement. Heather Rostker, a museum exhibit developer by day, lives nearby and would be giving everyone on her list Container Store products — or at least gifts wrapped in Container Store paper — anyway.

Other top choices for seasonal retail workers are high school and college students, senior citizens, stay-at-home mothers and people like Terri Bonanno Hirsh who, despite working a day job at her husband's veterinary clinic, can't seem to get retailing out of her blood. The former manager for stores including CVS, Hit or Miss and, most recently, Williams-Sonoma, says she may return to seasonal work again this year. "The smells and the fun (at Williams-Sonoma) make me want to start again," says Hirsh. "My old boss says I can come back to work seasonal again this year. I think I might."

•Choosing honest people. The dark side of all this holiday cheer is that the shorter an employee's tenure, the more likely he or she will steal, a National Retail Federation study shows. Half of all retail theft is by employees, so seasonal hires are among the riskiest propositions. When turnover rates — which would include seasonal workers — were above the industry average of 68.2%, the theft rate was "substantially above" the industry average of 1.78% of sales.

"Seasonal or part-time individuals … might not have the loyalty," says Joe LaRocca, NRF's vice president of loss prevention. "There are ways to steal money and merchandise from companies and get away with it for short periods of time."

Background checks and public record searches are being used more frequently than they used to be for seasonal workers, LaRocca says. Retailers also are using technology that can analyze cash register transaction information to quickly detect internal theft.

•Training on the fly. Both workers and customers often complain about lack of training for seasonal workers. The Container Store puts seasonal employees through as much training as any other hires, about 20 hours.

Underhill, a first-year high school teacher who says low pay and student loan debt prompted his decision to apply at Container Store, is a former manager at Abercrombie & Fitch. But he's told he'll be trained on Container Store sales strategy, which includes suggesting necessary supplies so busy shoppers don't have to return because they forgot, say, tape.

Teachers make great holiday-season employees, says Dan Butler, NRF vice president of retail operations and merchandising. "They understood the material being taught in the training class, learned whatever they had to learn on the computer quickly, and helped bring others along in the class," he says.

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